Ukraine Tension Mounts as Police Face Gunfire in East

Ukrainian security forces exchanged fire with gunmen in the country’s east after separatists attacked police stations in what the government in Kiev called “external aggression” from Russia.

Camouflaged gunmen fired on Ukrainian security forces advancing in an anti-terror operation near Slovyansk today Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said. Yesterday, gunmen blocked the town’s police and security service headquarters and took over the regional police station in Donetsk. Officers in Krasnyi Liman and Kramatorsk also exchanged fire with gunmen and prevented people from seizing a station in Horlivka.

“Please let all civilians know to vacate the center of town, to not to leave their apartments, and to stay away from windows,” Avakov posted on his Facebook account. “Separatists have opened fire in direction of approaching special units.”

In an echo of events in Crimea that preceded Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, the pro-Russia protests have rattled Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Government buildings were seized in the cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk last week, near the border where NATO said about 40,000 Russian troops are massing in combat readiness.

The anti-terror operation began after acting President Oleksandr Turchynov called an emergency meeting of the country’s National Defense and Security Council last night.

Intelligence Reports

“Members discussed anti-terrorist measures and issues related to stabilizing the situation on Ukraine’s east,” according to a statement released on the parliament’s website.

Intelligence reports from the U.S. and its allies indicate that some of yesterday’s demonstrators infiltrated cities in eastern and southern Ukraine during the last month or more as part of a Russian plan to divide Ukraine into federated regions, some of which may hold referendums to rejoin Russia, as Crimea did, two U.S. officials said.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the reports, which they stressed aren’t conclusive, the officials said that the assessment continues to be that Russian President Vladimir Putin prefers using a campaign of provocation, propaganda, bribery and subversion -- rather than an outright invasion by Russian troops -- to take over some of parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Landlocked Scenario

If such a campaign is successful, one of the officials said, the remainder of Ukraine would be left landlocked, deprived of its industrial belt, dependent on Russia for energy and unable to pursue closer ties with western Europe.

“We are very concerned by the concerted campaign we see underway” in eastern Ukraine “by pro-Russian separatists, apparently with support from Russia, who are inciting violence and sabotage and seeking to undermine and destabilize the Ukrainian state,” Laura Lucas Magnuson, U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman, said in response to a request for comment.

“We saw similar so-called protest activities in Crimea before Russia’s purported annexation,” Magnuson said in a statement. “We call on President Putin and his government to cease all efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and we caution against further military intervention.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a call yesterday to his Russian counterpart, expressed strong concern that the attacks in eastern Ukraine were orchestrated and similar to the violence that served as a prelude to the Crimean annexation, according to an e-mailed statement from a U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be named under department policy.

Additional Consequences

Kerry stressed to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia will face additional consequences if it doesn’t de-escalate the tensions in Ukraine’s eastern areas, according to the statement.

The U.S and other countries, as part of their response to the Crimea annexation, have enacted economic sanctions targeting Russian officials and businessmen -- including Putin allies -- and a bank.

Canada widened its sanctions yesterday to cover a Crimean oil and gas company and two Crimean officials it said “bear responsibility for the crisis.” In a statement, the Canadian government also said it would “continue to work with allies and like-minded countries to apply pressure to Russia until it de-escalates the situation in Ukraine.”

Kerry and Lavrov, as well as Ukrainian and EU officials, are among the diplomats planning to meet on April 17. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will also travel to Ukraine April 22.

Separatist Actions

“Russia is speaking and behaving not as a partner, but as an adversary,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote in Danish newspaper Politiken. “While tens of thousands of combat-ready Russian troops stand poised on Ukraine’s border, Russia is also waging a propaganda war the like of which we have not seen since the end of the Cold War. Its purpose is to pervert the truth, divert attention from Russia’s illegal actions, and subvert the authorities in Ukraine.”

In Slovyansk yesterday, local social media described how camouflaged gunmen with automatic weapons, resembling those in unmarked uniforms in Crimea, barricaded the road to prevent police buses from entering the city, according to a report by the Interfax news service.

In Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, about 1,000 pro-Kremlin and pro-government protesters rallied at separate downtown squares yesterday. No clashes were reported. Police detained 70 people traveling by bus to Kharkiv after finding them armed with knives, clubs and Molotov cocktails, the Interior Ministry said on its website.

Putin has been ratcheting up pressure on Ukraine, threatening to halt gas shipments to the country. A stoppage may also hurt supplies to the rest of Europe.

Referendum Demand

The European Union plans to help Ukraine pay its gas bill and there’s “no reason to panic” over shipments of the fuel, European Union Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in an interview with the Austrian radio station ORF.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government in Kiev wants to increase the powers of regions and to resolve the crisis that’s gripping the country as soon as possible, he said.

During a march through Donetsk yesterday, people celebrated officers of the riot police unit Berkut, which was disbanded after it fought protesters during the deadly clashes in Kiev in February that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, addressing reporters with Yatsenyuk yesterday, urged the holding of a referendum on decentralization at the same time as the Ukraine presidential election scheduled for May 25.

While only 8 percent of Ukrainians nationwide want their region to secede, in Donetsk province the figure is 18 percent, according to an opinion poll by the Kiev-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation. The creation of an independent state in southern and eastern Ukraine is backed by 11 percent, according to the March 16-30 survey conducted among 2,010 respondents in 24 Ukrainian regions including Crimea and the capital, Kiev.

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